Christchurch earthquake, 22 February
It’s been just over 24 hours since the massive quake here in Canterbury New Zealand and we’ve now moved out to rural Kainga where we’re staying with a friend of a work colleague. We have power and Internet here so I can finally sit down and debrief and share my experience of yesterday’s terrible quake.
We had felt a minor tremor during the morning and I joked to my partner who had arrived in-country just a couple of days before that if she had come into work with me she would have experienced her first quake in NZ.
I left our office on the corner of Lichfield and Madras streets around half-past 12 to take my lunch break. After going to Hanafins Pharmacy on High Street I made my way down Cashel Street towards The Crossing food court when it hit.
Everything I thought I knew about our planet, tectonic plates and physics just went out the window as what I experienced can only be described as a giant, grabbing the city with two hands and shaking it violently. I’ve had a few minor tremors since moving to Christchurch a month ago but I had no idea an earthquake was capable of this.
I was walking down the tram lines in Cashel Street when a rumbling sound started up and within a second the entire street was flexing and heaving. The overhangs on all the shops along Cashel Street immediately snapped off and dropped to the ground and as the facades started to crumble and collapse bricks, glass and chunks of concrete were hurled into the street.
I couldn’t run, there was nowhere to run and just trying to stay upright was like trying to stand on the back of a rodeo bull. I kept an eye on both sides of the street trying to duck and avoid the shower of debris.
I was convinced I was going to die. The city was collapsing around me, people were being buried in rubble and others being struck in the head by debris. Absolute pandemonium. It was surreal … both horrific yet somehow impossible and unbelievable like a nightmare.
I watched the Westpac building move back and forth in a massive 20-metre arc threatening to collapse into the street which thankfully it didn’t. A huge cloud of concrete dust from collapsed buildings billowed out from everywhere.
Cashel Street near where I was standing on the tram lines you can see in foreground (Stuff.co.nz)
As soon as the initial quake stopped my first thought was for my partner and my team at work. I tried to call Jenny but the lines were already overloaded so I shot off a text and started running back to work, keeping an eye on the still wobbling Westpac building and a few remaining walls threatening to fall down into the street.
I checked in with my team who had evacuated the office. There were all shaken but mostly ok except for Ken who had been hit in the head by a cable tray that fell from the roof. He was clutching a bandage over his wound but was positive and still standing.
My next priority was to check in on my partner who was in our apartment across town in Merivale. I had no car so I set off on foot and half-ran, half-walked the 4km back home. My throat was parched from the concrete dust. Aftershocks came quick and fast but traffic was barely crawling so I was able to walk down the middle of the streets. I started heading off diagonally towards Merivale back down Cashel past the collapsed CTV building but as I walked I started to get a grip and realise the stupidity of taking the quickest route so doubled back and headed around the east edge of the CBD.
Many routes were blocked by sewerage flooding across the road and grey sand pouring out through cracks in the ground. Gas could be heard coming out of ruptured lines in buildings. Buildings that were still being repaired from the September quakes were now completely demolished: several old stone churches and temples. Entire walls had fallen away from buildings, a one-tonne block of concrete had fallen and split a tree in half. Nowhere felt safe. I stayed away from tall buildings fearing collapse (I could see a massive vertical crack through the Hotel Grand Chancellor where I had stayed when I first moved here) and weaved through the muck leaking out of the ground.
I finally made it back to Carlton Mill Road and embraced Jenny, and we sat at the bus stop just agast completely at a loss of what to do. Hundreds of cars were slowly moving down our street away from the CBD – we didn’t know if we should be going somewhere, we didn’t know if there were any evacuation centres or shelters, we didn’t know where was safe. A few residents in our building told us our place was supposedly earthquake-safe and should be ok, but I didn’t trust it. After the carnage I had seen I knew every building has its breaking point and I knew this quake was severe.
We ducked back inside and grabbed some supplies including a bottle of Jameson (I badly needed a drink to take the edge off the trauma) and headed across the Avon River into Little Hagley Park where we sat and talked and planned what we should do. We decided to see if anything was happening on the golf course across Harper Avenue so headed over and joined a large group of people who had evacuated a nearby hotel and sat around, having no better idea of what to do.
Eventually someone got word from Civil Defence that a shelter was being set up down near the Botanic Gardens so we all moved down there past several large trees that had been uprooted and the Flower Festival that was completely under water. Plywood boards were made available to sit and lie on and we hung around for an hour but they had no idea when food and water would come so we decided to head back to our apartment. We didn’t know it was safe but it looked reasonably ok and we had nowhere else to stay.
I did an interview with 2CC radio which you can listen to. There was no power, no clean water; we had heard via SMS contact with relatives in Australia that we should boil water but all we had was candles so all we could drink was bottled softdrink. We slept in our clothes on the couch, bags packed and by the door in case we needed to evacuate in a hurry but as our sleepless night wore on we eventually crawled into bed, waking every hour or so when stronger aftershocks hit.
In the morning after barely eating or drinking the last 24 hours a Twitter contact Dave Richards came over and dropped us off a case of spring water. We made ourselves useful by clearing a collapsed wall from the entrance to our apartment building and shortly after my colleague Daniel and his friend came over, helped us pack food, clothes and some supplies and drove us out here to Kainga where we are now.
What next? Our office is ruined, and for a small business that’s already been through several quakes in the last few months I don’t know if I still have a job. I won’t know for days. We’re staying in a campervan out here, but eventually we’ll need to move all our stuff out of our apartment. We can’t wait six months for an EQC inspection. Perhaps we will need to pack up and move back to Australia?
I know my account here doesn’t do this horrific event justice. I didn’t take photos in the CBD as self-preservation was paramount but even photos and the video footage I’ve now seen don’t reflect the magnitude of this quake. So many lives lost, so much damage, people in shock, wailing, injuries, cars crushed, ground shaking (we can still feel it out here every half hour or so), a city in ruins.
I’m thankful I wasn’t injured in the quake. It’s amazing, considering buildings were raining down on me. If the quake had hit a minute earlier or later, or if I had failed to dodge the meteor shower of debris I might not be alive today.
I have my health and now somewhere safe to stay for a couple of days, clean water and food. I am very fortunate but all I can see when I close my eyes is that scene on Cashel Street and thinking of the people in that CTV building that collapsed on itself to just a few metres high. And in my dreams last night? Quakes, of course. This terrible event is going to be with me forever.
Now I just need to deal with what I’ve seen, what I’ve experienced and process it and figure out what to do next.
My thoughts are with those who have been impacted far worse that I, those who have lost their lives or suffered injury and the heroic emergency services crews who have been working non-stop throughout the night amongst the constant threat of aftershocks and collapses to free people from the rubble.
I have since written another blog post reflecting on my actions immediately after the quake hit. Also, we found out a week after the quake that our apartment building has been given a red sticker, meaning it has been deemed unsafe to enter.